Teachers call back-to-work legislation 'bullying'
Education Minister George Abbott says there's no turning back from an eventual legislated end to the ongoing teachers strike in British Columbia.
Abbott rejected the teachers' calls for the appointment of a mediator or arbitration, saying the two sides are simply too far apart.
There may be some room to mediate non-monetary issues, he said, but the wage gap -- zero for the government and $2.06 billion for the teachers -- is too vast.
"I don't think you can ask a mediator to bridge that kind of chasm," Abbott said Thursday afternoon. "If the (B.C. Teachers Federation) is looking for someone to come along and cut the loaf in half and bridge between net zero and $2.06 billion, government will not do that."
Abbott said earlier Thursday he's directed his staff to start preparing back-to-work legislation for teachers after a fact finder appointed by the government to examine the situation concluded the chances of a voluntary end to the long-running dispute are "very unlikely."
Teachers have been on a limited strike since the beginning of the year, and while they can't legally walk off the job, they've been refusing to perform administrative duties such as filling out report cards.
Union president Susan Lambert, who represents the province's 41,000 teachers, said Abbott is attempting to bully teachers with threats of legislation. She said the teachers would accept a mediator or arbitration over an imposed contract.
"They have the option of choosing all the mechanisms under the Labour Relations Code to resolve this dispute," she said at a news conference.
"So they have alternatives. Let's exhaust every avenue that we can to find a respectful end to this dispute that's not bullying legislation. That would just make matters worse."
Lambert said teachers will conduct a study session Monday over the lunch hour. She said teachers want to resolve long-standing issues that will only be temporarily papered over with an imposed deal.
"Now, we are urging the government not to repeat a pattern that has left a legacy of damaged relationships and deteriorating learning conditions in B.C. schools," she said in a statement.
She said teachers are determined not to accept additional stripping of hard-won collective agreement rights.
Abbott wouldn't say when the government would introduce the back-to-work legislation, but he said he expects the matter will be seriously discussed in the legislature next week.
"I'm not prepared to let this go on any further," he said following the release of the fact-finder report. "I've asked my staff to look at remediation of this situation over the weekend. We will look at putting together a bill or bills to deal with this situation."
Robin Austin, the Opposition New Democrat education critic, said the government must consider a mediator "who could go in and crack some heads" before introducing legislation.
"I don't think a legislated settlement at this point without at least going and trying a mediator is the best way to do this," he said. "At the end of the day, even if we do have a legislated settlement, the problems of the school system are still going to be there."
Abbott said the two sides are "an ocean apart. A freely negotiated agreement, I am satisfied, is an impossibility."
He said the BCTF and the government are no strangers to imposed contract settlements, with legislation being the norm for several decades.
"Some work has been done, regrettably," said Abbott.
Liberal and NDP governments have both resorted to legislation to end or head off teacher strikes.
In 1998, the NDP imposed a contract on teachers on the last day of school.
Relations between the BCTF and the Liberal government have been mostly acrimonious.
In 2001, the Liberals passed essential services legislation and effectively removed teachers' right to strike. In 2002, the Liberals removed class-size, staffing, and workload provisions from contracts, a move that was struck down as unconstitutional by a judge. Both sides were ordered by the court to work together to resolve the issue.
In the fall of 2005, teachers engaged in a two-week strike after the Liberal government extended their expired contract. The strike was ruled illegal by the B.C. Supreme Court and the BCTF was fined.
In 2006, the BCTF and government negotiated a five-year contract that included a 16-per-cent wage increase and a one-time signing bonus of $4,000 per teacher.
Earlier this month NDP Leader Adrian Dix said he preferred a negotiated settlement. In the event of a legislated end to the dispute, the NDP would have to look at the back-to-work law before deciding which way to vote, he said.
Trevor Hughes, the assistant deputy minister of industrial relations, was asked to look into the dispute and the progress of negotiations, and he released his report earlier in the day on Thursday.
Hughes found that despite almost a year of negotiations and more than 75 face-to-face sessions, the two sides have not been able to narrow the gap between their positions.
"Neither party views the other party as anywhere close to what is commonly referred to as the 'settlement zone,"' Hughes wrote.
Hughes said both the employer and the BCTF view each other as unwilling to budge.
The employers' association complains that teachers won't identify their priorities, making it difficult to find areas where progress can be made, said Hughes.
In turn, Hughes said the teachers regard their employers as "intractable, unwilling to move and 'not in a settlement zone."'
Hughes said the government's mandate requiring public sector unions to negotiate contracts that do not have any cost increases is a "fundamental obstacle in this set of bargaining."
Hughes's report said the teachers' union wants a wage increase of 15 per cent over three years.
"Net-zero is the order of the day," said Abbott, referring to the government's policy that any new public-sector wage increases must be offset by concessions elsewhere in a collective agreement.
"I know the BCTF believe that doesn't apply to them."